Why desi kids win the Spelling Bee

It’s not just our innate nerdiness, apparently.  Or the fact that some of their parents were themselves very efficient rote learners.  “Mugging” or cramming for exams was something I never got the hang of, but we all know someone who crammed their way to academic brilliance (at least in school).  Perhaps they passed on their tips to their kids?

Apparently, the bigger secret is that desi kids have their own national-level Spelling Bee preparatory network. Slate has an interesting article on the North South Foundation, a nonprofit byRatnam Chitturi which runs (among other things) a Spelling Bee league.   This is what Slate says about NSF:

The NSF circuit consists of 75 chapters run by close to 1,000 volunteers. The competitions, which began in 1993, function as a nerd Olympiad for Indian-Americans—there are separate divisions for math, science, vocab, geography, essay writing, and even public speaking—and a way to raise money for college scholarships for underprivileged students in India.

Kavya Shivashankar (Pic. courtesy Washington Post)

Kavya Shivashankar (Pic. courtesy Washington Post)

The NSF Spelling Bee competitions (Slate describes one in Kansas held at the local temple) are also at a national level and have some prize money, though nothing on the scale of Scripps. Slate estimates that about 30 desi kids from the NSF ranks will be among the 273 kids who participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee which starts tomorrow.  The finals air on ABC on Friday, June 4th. Hopefully, at least a few of those 30 kids will make it all the way to the finals and perhaps even win.

Of course I will be watching – longtime readers know how much of a Spelling Bee fan – in 2007, I wondered about all the desi kids on the Bee and what their parents must be telling each other ,  in 2008, I hypothesised about why Indians do so well in the Bee (CBSE system? ancient gurukul tradition?) and about Sameer Mishra’s “numb nuts”.   It’s a fascinating phenomenon,  this abundance of desi participation, and I have never figured out why this is so.

But I will be puzzling over it some more over the next few days as I watch gawky kids in braces and pigtails mouth words I’ve never heard before.

I’m not sure why I watch.  I really don’t know why I find this such a fascinating competition.  Perhaps when I understand that, I will also understand what drives so many Indian-American parents to spend so many years teaching their kids, or so many kids to spend years learning words they’ll probably never use again.  The prize money is good – the winner got $40,000 last year, but desis have been competing in the Bee long before the prize money was anything great.

So why do you think desis like the Spelling Bee so much?  What could explain this phenomenon?


21 thoughts on “Why desi kids win the Spelling Bee

  1. I think in weird sort of way, we Indians think we are really worth something by actually putting up a lot of pressure on ourselves wether we like it or not. There is a kind of guilt with which we are bought up that if we don’t feel the pain/pleasure at very early stages, we would somehow screw up life when we grow up. I hope the kids who participate in these events do it cos they enjoy it rather than their parents forcing them do something which they couldn’t do in their own lives.


    • That’s an interesting theory. I get that there is a cultural pressure to excel academically, though this pressure to excel does not seem to extend to the sports, or arts. It’s also true that there are not many second chances in India – changing careers is very difficult, and your last year of school is life-defining. But all this should not apply in the US, right?

      • ” Old habits die hard “, don’t they? You can place us in mars and we will have to be in some sort of race there also. The reason I speak of this is that I have seen something of this sort is very evident in my own family itself. we come from a orthodox brahmin family and one of my cousin is in NJ, She has two kids and now they boast that the kids recite almost every verse of B.Gita. I personally think it is stupid ( unless the kid has the fascination for it ), to force something of ” our culture ” in the west as it is not fair on the kid. I can see the influence behind the spelling bee…..

      • That’s fascinating. What’s even more interesting is – it’s quite likely that the parents themselves cannot recite every verse in the Gita 😀 (Plus, memorizing Gita verses is somewhat misguided. Much better to understand what the verses mean, even if you don’t know Sanskrit and have to read the verses in English.)
        Everything does become some sort of competition between cousins or classmates – is that what you mean when you talk about races? Here, possibly the my-son-can-recite-more-Gita-verses/ is-more-into-Indian-culture kind of competition ? 🙂 (I hope your sister does not read this blog, or you are in serious trouble :))

  2. I love watching the bee too. I thought I and the husband were the only losers who loved watching it, but apparently not! I like how these kids channel their energies on such pursuits rather than being on reality shows!

    • Oh no, if watching NFL (or if watching the Indian cricket team make a fool of themselves, like now) doesn’t make one a loser, watching the Spelling Bee definitely does not 🙂 For one thing, I do end up learning a new word or two every time I watch.

      And this is the kids’ ultimate reality show, don’t you think?

  3. When one desi can do it then all the desis can do it too. One kid learns bharatnatyam the whole community learns bharatnatyam. Same with Spelling Bee. Indian parents are all too familiar with the rote learning turf on which the entire education system in India is based. They miss that in the US education system. Here is one race track they can train their ghoda to win.
    By the way does anyone ever wonder how only desis do spelling bees only for desis in a country that emphasizes equal opportunities for all, irrespective of their race?
    Has anyone in USA ever heard of a football league only for African Americans or a swim meet only for Caucasians or even a math league only for people of Chinese descent?

    • One misses rote learning? 🙂 Sigh. I know what you mean – that’s what got them ahead, it’s their “skill”. Interesting viewpoint on NSF – I just thought it was some kind of Hindu community effort, which was why it was filled with Indians, and not that it was exclusionary. Does NSF limit membership to desis?

      • Most desi bees do. There is another one called south asian spelling bee which requires at least one parent be of south asian descent so the kid can participate.

      • These are merely practice grounds for kids(parents) who aspire to win Scripps. The irony is the grounds are restricted to desis only, in a country which is based on equal opportunities for all. So desi kids get the exclusive advantage of practicing on such grounds before they participate in the Scripps bee which is open to all races. Is this ethically right is an interesting point of debate or discussion.

      • If you come down to it, this is not new in the US. You have universities that admit students of predominantly one religion (Catholic/ Mormon etc). You are allowed to do that – as long as you don’t get public funding. If you are privately funded and the objective of your organization is to help a certain community, however you define it – on religious/ geographical/ ethnic or class basis, there is nothing unethical about it.

        If you get even a cent of public funding, then the picture changes and it would be unethical, possibly even illegal.

      • I don’t believe any of those universities restrict admissions to followers of a certain faith. Yes they are private and are allowed to preach their religious values or offer courses based on those values and most people of that faith only choose to go to those universities because of private scholarships available to them etc etc however they do not have a clause that restricts admission. There are however private colleges for women only as women are perceived to be at a disadvantage when competing with men.
        I have still never heard of restrictive leagues or competitions though as I said before whether it is ethical or not is a debatable issue. I suppose Indians could be seen as minority in America therefore the restrictive basis of those leagues could be justified.

      • You are right that no university restricts admission to students of a particular religious faith. But the concept is very similar in terms of preferential treatment. Take 2009 Notre Dame undergrad admissions statistics, for instance – 84% of the incoming class is Catholic. If it’s not 100%, it’s more because it’s in the university’s own interest to have at least a little diversity in its student body (for instance, to attract full fee paying students). So to my mind, preferential financial aid and admission is part of the same spectrum as outright restriction.

        Having said that, I don’t know much about the Spelling Bee leagues you are referring to. You obviously have certain organizations in mind when you are talking about restrictive practices. Do these other organizations specify that only Indian-Americans are allowed to participate? Or is the case that they are so full of desis that other students just stay away?

  4. Its respectable enough to participate in and the money won seems ‘well earned’..again this is only a supposition, who can fathom the minds of the great indian parent?

    • Agreed, the money is quite respectable and with the National publicity, this event would look good on a resume. And who’s to say that spending hours poring over a dictionary is inferior to spending hours perfecting your balance beam routine?

  5. Anything better than watching Hanna Montana whole summer I say. Come on now, didn’t we “rattoed” words from Barron’s Guide for “higher study” in USofA, and that didn’t even have a dollar prize attached.

    At least these kids are learning other life skills in the process

    • Yes, of course! How quickly I have forgotten – of course I have had my share of cramming too 😀 Your reference to Barron’s guide brings back memories of reading word lists in the bus while going to college 😀 There was also a book on etymological roots of words that we had (a prize from somewhere) that was also quite helpful in memorizing these words. So yes, I have had my Spelling Bee moments too!

    • Moreover, social life in the US is considered dangerous and immoral by first-generation Indian immigrants. Better keep the child at home and give him a dictionary.” I laughed out loud when I read that, but who knows – there might just be parents (especially girls’ parents?) who think that way 😀

  6. Am also part of the huge fan following of these Spelling Bees. I enjoy watching them and make my own feeble attempts to try to match my knowledge in figuring out the meaning, origin, etc (except for the spelling) of those exotic sounding words. I rarely succeed, with my limited vocabulary. But it is nonetheless enjoyable. Just like doing crosswords and the kick one gets out of it when we get a difficult word. Can’t comment on the how’s & why’s of these contests & it’s participants, but interesting to see these contests having a majority of Indian origin (whatever that is supposed to mean!) kids. My take away from these contests are a couple of new words. Am sure kids also can learn quite a bit by watching these contests. Can’t say the same about any other talent contests, where it is through and through one’s own talent exhibition. No take-aways for the audience.

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